It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to tell you that one of my favorite paintings in Minneapolis is hanging over the shoe bin of the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop on East Lake Street. It’s a portrait of St. Vincent himself, possibly made by a self-taught painter, and based loosely on the portrait by Simon Francois de Tours. Every time I go in there, I am always sure to send a fond nod in his direction.
In the painting, St. Vincent is looking beatific and radiating holy light from his skull-capped head, with a NOT FOR SALE sign displayed prominently near his left shoulder. Who would ever try to buy it, though? He’s so perfectly a part of the environment. Every establishment in town named for a person should be fortunate enough to have that person’s portrait somewhere on-site. One of the things I’ll miss most about Nye’s Polonaise Room when it closes is the oversized black-and-white photograph of Al Nye and his wonderful mustache, hanging by the front door on the lounge side and looking fondly out at his establishment. Where’s that going to go?
The St. Vincent portrait is the best example of a type of thrift store art around, but that’s a very broad and very deep category. Thrift store art was, for many years, a sort of obsession not just for me, but also for an awful lot of my peers. During my art school days, in the waning years of the Clinton administration, thrift stores were still packed full of the visual detritus of the 1960s and ’70s: conquistador paintings, black velvet portraits of Jesus or Elvis, Walter Keane knockoffs of saucer-eyed orphans, blocky scenes of mustard and teal-colored urban high-rises, mass-produced prints of leaping deer that looked like the backgrounds of regional beer ads, and an endless number of paint-by-number scenes of old mills, sad clowns and snow-covered barns. I had a roommate about this time with the entire wall between our living room and bathroom covered salon-style in paint-by-numbers. If you were born between 1965 and 1980, you probably knew someone with a similar decorative scheme.
Those types of paintings, of course, are impossible to find in thrift stores now. You can still find them in bars and coffee shops: The Spyhouse on Nicollet has a dozen of those city scenes, and the Kitty Cat Klub has a basement filled with black-velvet conquistadores. For paint-by-numbers, try the Hot Plate in Nokomis, and the old Clown Lounge at the Turf Club is full of Northwoods kitsch.
Time marches on, and the tasteful, pastel-colored prints and paintings that hung in our parents’ living rooms when we were digging around for musty clown paintings now hold those same places in today’s thrift stores.
The Lake Street St. Vincent de Paul doesn’t really have a very extensive art collection, but the Savers a few blocks east on Lake certainly does. I’m no stranger to that store, either, but it had been a while since I’d spent much time in the art aisle. So I headed down to see what was on display at the moment.
The selection this past weekend seemed very typical. There are certain types of paintings and prints that never seem to go out of fashion. For starters, nearly any Impressionist or post-Impressionist; in particular, Van Gogh and Monet vie eternally for thrift store supremacy. Interestingly, the prominence of Monet prints is a more recent phenomenon than I imagined. You can trace it almost directly to a four-month run of a major Monet retrospective at the Chicago Art Institute in 1995, during which the museum’s gift shop totaled a stunning $1.5 million, the usual combined total for an entire year’s sales. Merchandisers got the message, and all sorts of consumer goods featuring reproductions of Monet’s lily pads, bridges, poppies and gardens flooded the market. Van Gogh, whose popularity has famously grown ever higher since his death in 1890, has kept pace. This particular day at Savers, there are reproductions of Monet’s “Water Lily Pond” and Van Gogh’s “Houses at Auvers.” But another day, you might as likely find “Water Lillies,” “Charing Cross Bridge,” “Sunflowers,” “Starry Night,” “Rouen Cathedral” or “The Bedroom.” These prints are invariably framed and with nice mats – possibly housewarming gifts, or impulsive purchases made in museum gift shops. Most people like Van Gogh.
Twentieth-century works don’t turn up as often, aside from a few reproductions by mostly forgotten populists like Lee K. Parkinson (florid rustic landscapes) and C. Mitchell (Keane-ian children). However, plenty of other 19th-century painters are represented. This particular day, there are reproductions of Jean-Francois Millet’s 1859 painting “The Angelus,” wherein two peasant farmers pray for the success of their potato harvest, and Norwegian post-Impressionist Harriet Backer’s 1887 work “Bygdeskomakere,” which shows two rural cobblers hard at work in a modestly furnished cottage. I always find it odd that such paeans to the nobility of toil and labor seem to make it into people’s living rooms and kitchens as pleasant decorations.
Speaking of Scandinavians, there is, of course, the obligatory IKEA print. This one is pretty tasteful; I thought initially it might be the work of a local collage artist I recognized, but no, it’s a discontinued IKEA original. More and more of these will inevitably make their way to thrift stores in the next 30 years. I wonder if they’ll ever adorn the walls of irony-minded art students of the future, as Keane kids and black velvet adorned those of the ’80s and ’90s. Art students yet unborn will, by 2030 and 2040, have invented forms of irony so sophisticated that we will scarcely be able to comprehend them. It may involve IKEA posters of gauzy black-and-white shots of the Eiffel Tower. Who knows?
The Great Sorter at Savers, of course, doesn’t distinguish between original artworks and printed reproductions – or even mirrors, actually, which also make their way into this section. The most interesting investigations in the art aisle are in finding original, one-of-a-kind works of art. You often – not always, but often – find something quite striking. Whether it’s the work of a hobbyist or master artist, it all ends up in the same place, priced more according to size and condition of the frame than any notion of aesthetics or authenticity.
Probably the best thing I find on this visit is a print by Hsing Hua Chang, a Kansas City-based watercolor artist. It’s a traditional Chinese watercolor of a winter scene, mostly atmospheric whites and blacks with splashes of red in some berries. When looking through this sort of work to distinguish the mass-produced work from those the artist may have had a hand in, look for editioned numbers in the corner. That will tell you how many prints were in that particular production run, and what number yours is. This particular one is 362 of 750 total, and it’s signed personally by the artist – the “AWS” stands for “American Watercolor Society,” meaning she’s been accepted as a member of the organization, an indication of a level of mastery of the medium.
I’m also interested in a print by an artist based on Madeline Island whose landscape paintings have been popular with tourists there for many years. The bottom reads “Madeline Island Music Camp 1991,” and it depicts a few gestural pine trees on a rock overlooking the lake.
I’m interested not because of the quality of the image, though it’s nice enough, but for two other reasons. 1.) It’s so specific to the time and place – the picture is from a frame shop on Madeline Island, according to the sticker on the back, meaning it’s almost certainly a treasured memory of a specific visit in 1991 involving the band camp, and 2.) It seems to have been repurposed for the music camp. The text is affixed to a transparent piece of film, and placed over the image. Was this a homemade poster for the music camp? Or did the music camp merchandise this image and make it available to the parents of the attendees? The reverse doesn’t tell us much either way.
I can say this: If I were a young entrepreneur opening a Northwoods-themed bar in Northeast or Lyn-Lake, and I was trying to move away from the sepia-toned look of the ’60s and ’70s and update the atmosphere to appeal to young professionals hoping to be reminded of the diaphanous pastel color schemes of their grandparents’ Wisconsin cabin décor in the late ’80s, I’d snap this up in a second.
You have to keep up with the times, after all. Walter Keane and black velvet are dead. Long live pastel metal tube frames.